I head down to Cape Cod this weekend to mourn the death and celebrate the life of my friend Gabe Fackre. Gabe was very important to my life. I knew him first as my seminary teacher, then my mentor, later a faithful colleague and a life-long friend. Most of all he encouraged me again and again in my ministry. Continue reading
I was blessed to have sabbaticals from the pastorate at three iconic British universities, Oxford, St Andrews, and Cambridge, where I read and wrote about this subject.
Out of those experiences came a number of journal articles and this book of essays. I have been heavily influenced by the thought of the British theologian P.T. Forsyth, and many of the chapters in this book focus on his theology.
The book was published in 2000 by Pickwick Press, which later became part of Wipf and Stock Publishers, who re-issued the book in 201o, for which I am grateful. It is a humble little book that traces my attempt to come to grips with this vexing doctrine. It has an extraordinary foreword by the estimable Gabriel Fackre, which I think alone makes the book worth having.
Wipf and Stock is currently having a 40% off sale until May 1, so if you are interested in obtaining this book, now is the time. You can go to the link here.
One of the perennial questions about the meaning of Christ’s atoning death is “was it an expiation or a propitiation?” In other words, was the atonement performed towards us, or towards God? Both “expiation” and “propitiation” are terms used of sacrifice, but expiation implies a sacrificial taking away of some sin or offence (i.e. “Christ died for our sins”), whereas propitiation implies assuaging the anger or injured honor, holiness, or some other attribute of God.
An expiation changes us, taking away our sin, whereas a propitiation changes God, satisfying whatever needed to be satisfied. These are not mutually exclusive, obviously, but different atonement theories will stress one or the other. For example, in Abelard’s theory, nothing is offered to God, the atonement is a demonstration of God’s eternal love, whereas in Anselm’s theory the atonement is an offering to God, reconciling sinful humanity to God. The former risks, among other things, falling into subjectivism and failing to take God’s anger, honor, or justice seriously enough. The latter is criticized chiefly for turning the anger, honor or justice of God into a third thing beyond the Father and the Son, a necessity to which God is somehow obligated.
A further criticism of propitiation language is that it promotes views of atonement that have elements of punishment in them, thereby making its view of God morally objectionable. There is always a danger when the justice or wrath of God is separated from God’s love.
But do we have to choose between expiation and propitiation? Aren’t they both rightly part of a full-orbed understanding of the cross? Theologian George Hunsinger seems to think so, and in his fine book on the Eucharist, offers this useful analysis:
“God’s wrath is the form taken by God’s love when God’s love is contradicted and opposed. God’s love will not tolerate anything contrary to itself. It does not compromise with evil, or ignore evil, or call evil good. It enters into the realm of evil and destroys it. The wrath of God is propitiated when the disorder of sin is expiated. It would be an error to suppose that “propitiation” and “expiation” must be pitted against each other as though they were mutually exclusive. The wrath of God is removed (propitiation) when the sin that provokes it is abolished (expiation). Moreover, the love of God that takes the form of wrath when provoked by sin is the very same love that provides the efficacious means of expiation (vicarious sacrifice) and therefore of propitiation.” (George Hunsinger, The Eucharist and Ecumenism: Let us Keep the Feast. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008: 173-4.
It also keeps us from a careless separation of God’s love and wrath, and helps us realize that God’s love is not some avuncular tolerance, but holy love. God doesn’t tolerate our sins, but takes them away.
(Some of the above is excerpted from my When I Survey the Wondrous Cross: Reflections on the Atonement , Pickwick, 2000, Wipf and Stock, 2010)
If you were to worship in an American conservative evangelical church that hasn’t yet sold its soul to the prosperity Gospel, there is a good chance you may soon hear a sermon about the cross.
Not so in many Mainline churches. I have been ruminating about why this is, given the cross’ important place in the New Testament, especially in Paul’s writings, of which the Epistle Lesson appointed for tomorrow, 2 Corinthians 5:16-2, is a prime example.
This passage is clearly about the atonement, which was a word invented by Tyndale (“at-one-ment”) to translate the same Greek word that is also translated as “reconciliation.”
I expect there will be many sermons preached from it in “our” pulpits on how we need to be ambassadors of reconciliation, which is an important message and one I have preached myself.
But what you are less likely to hear is why we Christians are to be ambassadors of reconciliation. And that reason is clearly because “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself,” which goes right to the heart of the Gospel, the act of God in Christ that became known as the atonement.
I have stopped using the term “liberal,” because it’s practically useless as a identifier, and its new substitute “progressive” carries political baggage that I find unhelpful. I realize “mainline” has its own problems, but at least it covers a wider range of both theological and political positions.
So why do “we” (by whatever name) generally like the idea of reconciliation, yet not like the idea of atonement, even though they mean the same thing?
I have some thoughts. One reason is some bad teaching in some of our seminaries, based on a view (false, in my view) that the cross is a bad business that perpetuates violence, which I have addressed elsewhere. There is a current cottage industry making the rounds with this view, and many of our newer ministers, indoctrinated by it, are just uncomfortable or downright hostile to any atonement theology, however nuanced.
Another reason is that many folks who end up with our denominations are refugees from various traditions that have had excessive or morbid preoccupations with “the power of the blood,” and/or who have been subject to formulaic atonement theories that make God into a monster that needs blood sacrifice. I have addressed that as well, in my book, When I Survey the Wondrous Cross: Reflections on the Atonement.
I realize that some atonement theories can be monstrous, and I am aware of Stanley Hauerwas’s typically biting comment that if “you need a theory to worship Christ, go worship your theory.”
Nevertheless, what the word atonement connotes is at the crux (which is Latin for cross ) of our Gospel and proclamation if we are still to be called Christians.
And “the power of the blood,” however it has been misused, is just theological shorthand for Christ dying on our behalf, an act of the triune God, that does for us what we cannot do for ourselves, namely reconciling us to God and to one another. This is why Paul says we are now ambassadors of reconciliation.
Yesterday I sent out a Passion hymn text to a number of my colleagues, thinking they might want to use it on Passion/Palm Sunday or during Holy Week. Most thanked me, some said they would use it, but several said they had a problem with the” blood“ in it.
The first verse is:
“He died upon the lonely tree
forsaken by his God.
And yet his death means all to me
and saves me by his blood.”
If you want to see the rest of the hymn it can be found here.
As Passiontide and Good Friday loom, “we” might do well to ask ourselves just what it is we are going to preach about if “the work of Christ” and its symbolic language is off limits?